American comedy TV series 'Get Smart' has inspired a scientist duo at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to devise a modern "cone of silence" aimed at letting confidential conversations in open-plan offices and canteens, remain confidential.
Engineers Joe Paradiso and Yasuhiro Ono, who have filed a patent application regarding this work, say that it will even let a conversing group move around a room, and still remain in a secure sound bubble.
"In increasingly common open-plan offices, the violation of employees' privacy can often become an issue, as third parties overhear their conversations intentionally or unintentionally," New Scientist magazine quoted the inventors as saying in their patent.
The researchers have revealed that their "sound shield" will be a desktop computer-based system.
They say that knowing the position of the computer, the sensors identify the person and map out the locations of people around them. A software program assesses who is so close that they must be participants in the conversation, and who might be a potential eavesdropper.
The array of speakers then aims a mix of white noise and randomised office hubbub at the eavesdroppers. The subtle, confusing sound makes the conversation unintelligible.
Paradiso insists that the idea, though not new, seems to be devoid of the big limitations that earlier works had.
"Current systems put sound out from one source. The sound isn't generally placed optimally between potential listeners and the people in conversation so there can often be too much or too little masking noise," the researcher.
The system will also advise users whether there are other people too close by for it to assure secrecy.
"With people often working in large open-plan spaces now, the time has come for ideas like this," says Paradiso.
Klaus Moeller, founder of sound-masking systems maker Logison of Oakville, Ontario, Canada, hails MIT's ambition.
"I wish MIT the best of luck with their idea," he says.
Moeller, however, still doubts its practicality.
"It sounds very expensive and not very practical in an office environment," he says.
He thinks architects may object to the many wall or ceiling-mounted devices the system needs to follow people around the office.